MIAMI — It’s Sunday, March 13 in sunny Miami, two days before the all-important Florida primary. I’m stepping off a red-eye Greyhound bus from New York to spend the day with home state Senator Marco Rubio and his top campaign staff.
My interviews and observations are to be strictly embargoed until Rubio’s campaign ends. Little do any of us know that this will happen Tuesday night.
For now, though, the mood is upbeat at Rubio HQ. Their candidate is fresh off a series of brilliant 2nd place victories across the map, and is way ahead of his opponents in the Establishment Lane. Plus the wind is at their sails from Rubio’s actual 1st place victory in yesterday’s Washington, D.C. caucus. It’s clear from their mood that Marco’s top staffers expect this D.C.-momentum to bring Marco over the finish line in his home state.
A fresh-faced young staffer sporting a Rubio-inspired haircut greets me and ushers me through the office. As I walk past rows of busy volunteers, interns, and junior staffers, I can’t help but notice that all of them, men and women alike, have the same Rubio-style haircut. It’s clear that these eager young Republicans don’t just want to elect Marco — they want to be Marco.
I am led into a sleek, modern conference room where Marco and his generals are holding a morning strategy session. As a VIP journalist I get a front row seat to the action.
“Everyone, please meet Cal Nguyen, he’s a writer for PBS here to chronicle our road to the White House,” says Rubio’s chief strategist Michael Kunig, who’s chewing ice cubes from a styrofoam cup with a determined look on his face.
“Hiya, everybody,” I say, sliding into a chair.
“Cal, I’m so pumped that you’re here,” beams Marco, offering me his fist for a young people-style handshake. Indeed, one of Marco’s great assets is his youthful energy, which has earned him comparisons to John F. Kennedy.
“Alright, guys, let’s get back into it,” says Marco. “How do the early voting numbers look?”
“Ehhh, we’re not concerned about early voting,” says Rubio’s campaign manager, a habitually-cool customer named Philip Yault. “All that matters, Champ, is that you get out there, toss the old pigskin around, and just go win this thing. That’s our strategy.”
“Now that’s what I call a game plan,” says Marco, smiling. His staffers all laugh heartily at their boss’s famous wit.
A breakfast cart is rolled in, and plates are set around the table. A female staffer — again with a Marco haircut — starts tying a bib on the flinchy candidate.
“The cavalry’s going to come on Tuesday,” Michael says through mouthfuls of Eggs Benedict. “Election day voters are probably going 5, 6-to-1 for Marco.”
“Absolutely,” says Philip. “Our guy is young, he has a moving life story, and he’s saying what voters want to hear. Marco’s got this in the bag. After we win a landslide victory here, Trump will drop out, and it’ll be smooth sailing into Cleveland.”
“Guess w-we’ll sail in on Lake Erie, huh?” retorts Marco. His campaign staffers nearly choke on their orange juice laughing at yet another cutting bon mot.
“Remember guys, before they flew the Enola Gay bomber on that noble-the noble mission of manhood–of mankind, they had orange juice. That’s kind of what we’re doing. They needed to drop those bombs. We’re dropping some bombs too.”
The staffers applaud at Marco’s impromptu speech that curiously alludes to the World War II nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we’re on our way.
After breakfast, we all hop on Rubio’s campaign bus to head to a rally in Coral Gables. While the candidate pumps himself up by listening to hip hop songs on his iPhone, I stare out the window and see Trump sign after Trump sign in this highly Cuban county that is supposed to be Rubio’s base of support.
The Trump signs actually seem to act like a corridor that leads us to the rally. The low, red cardboard wall that the taunting signs make reifies a constant theme of this primary, Trump’s proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. In that, it reminds Marco of his fumbling attempts to renounce his previous compromises towards immigration and his furtive new hardline stance, where he claims his own parents would have been deported under his plan. For Marco, it must bring back memories of sweaty palms, stuttering, and flinching whenever Donald Trump moved at debates out of fear of being struck.
Those fears vacate Marco’s mind to make room for new ones, as he arrives at his rally, which is just one man from Miami-Dade, of at least 80, proudly waving a homemade cardboard sign reading “MACRO.” Marco’s sideburns are now plastered to the side of his face with sweat.
“That last contribution, it was contingent on me advocating a raise on the retirement age! This is no good… this is… Marco. Marco, you coward. You blew it. You blew it. You wrecked it. You broke it all,” Rubio mutters.
Michael instinctively removes his jacket and places it over the senator’s head.
“He needs to feel protected when this happens,” he says reassuringly.
Behind us, two younger staffers who look like they could be Marco’s siblings are panicking.
“If this thing goes down, what do I do?” says one.
“You? He said he’d consider me as the administrator of the Free Iranian Provisional Authority after the invasion there!” the other yells.
“This is f**ked. We’re done. The Cruz people, do they still have that standing offer where they’ll give us reciprocity positions if we tell them some of Marco’s weaknesses?” the first man whispers.
“Everyone knows them now. Maybe if we move quick, we can get on. Goddamit, man. My older brother was with Bush in ’04. He got that big Blackwater job after that. Those days are done. The gravy train is out for our generation, man. It’s unfair. It’s some supreme bulls**t. It’s unacceptable.”
Marco’s breathing has normalized under Mike’s jacket. With nowhere else to go, we retreat.
After the rally debacle, Marco cancels the rest of his scheduled events for the day. Philip explains that the candidate is in need of some “serious downtime” to “juice up those batteries, so he can get right back into the game without being cranky.” The lights in the campaign HQ are dimmed, and Marco locks himself in a darkened, soundproof room for some R&R.
Philip and Michael have to attend to some business, so I plop myself down on a chair and check out the snarking on Twitter while I wait for Rubio to wake up from his nap. Busy young staffers fly past me all afternoon. I flag one down and ask why all of the young interns have Marco’s haircut, and all kind of resemble him too.
“We are Marco’s Children,” she says, then briskly walks away.
“Marco’s Children.” I roll that around in my head for a bit until my veteran reporter’s intuition hits me: the reason why all of these young people look like Marco and dress like Marco is because this campaign is extremely on-message. Mandatory Marco haircuts are a great advertisement for a disciplined operation.
It’s about 6 PM when Marco finally wakes up, and I have the chance to get some one-on-one with the candidate. Despite sleeping all day, Rubio looks tired. His cheeks are red and puffy, and he has a vacant expression on his face.
“Hiya, Senator, how was your nap?”
Rubio flinches automatically at the sound of my masculine voice. He takes a moment to regain his composure. “It was…” he trails off, his eyes staring past me.
I head right into my questions.“You know, Senator, this campaign has seen its fair share of mudslinging. From Jeb’s famous ‘Boots’ web ad–“
Marco flinches again at the name “Jeb,” stuttering, “J-J-Jeb. Jeb… b-boots.”
“–to Donald Trump’s–“
“N-no. No please.”
“–famous viral moments. So tell me, do you have any plans to deliver a punch to Mr. Trump?”
Beads of sweat are forming on Marco’s forehead. He ever-so-slightly starts shaking his head. He swallows deeply.
“W-well, you know, I… it’s hard. It’s hard to get up there, day after day. Cal, you have no idea… You have no idea what it means to… to try and be…”
Marco’s voice cracks into a high-pitched squeal. At first I think he’s smiling but then rivulets of tears are flowing down his pallid cheeks.
“I just… Cal… I just don’t know,” screams Marco in between wet, heaving sobs. “I just don’t know what words are the words you have to say. I thought… I thought I’d say the words!”
Michael rushes into the room and drapes his jacket over Marco’s head.
“Hey, it’s okay, buddy,” coos Michael. “You got this, man. You’re going to be President. There’s no need for another tear sesh.”
“I didn’t f-f-flip flop in my boots. That was a lie!” Marco pleads, his voice muffled by the jacket.
Philip comes in and sees the candidate blubbering underneath a jacket. “Oh, gee, not again. Hey Cal, maybe it’s best you leave now. I’ll walk you out.”
Philip and I amble towards the front door. Despite the candidate’s crying issue, he seems proud when he walks through the hustle and bustle of busy Marco’s Children. “We built this whole grassroots operation with nothing but a few million dollars from key hedge fund and pro-Israel operatives, Cal. You just have to say the right things, and you’re on your way to becoming President. You might think there’s more to it than that, but hey, you can’t really argue with the winner of the Puerto Rico primary and Minnesota caucus, huh?
“Gimme a call Tuesday night, after the networks report our 50-point victory in the Sunshine State and Trump’s campaign suspension, and maybe I can hook you up with a phone interview with presumptive nominee Marco Rubio.”
As I sit in the Greyhound station waiting for my bus back to Brooklyn, I think about Marco. I hadn’t told him my projection for Florida, because I knew it would crush him. But there is something in him that is, frankly, beautiful. Yes, he spends a lot of the time on the phone with screaming hedge fund managers and panics at all turns, but beyond all that is a man. And what makes that man special is that he showed vulnerability to a fellow man. I don’t think too many politicians should (or could) take after Marco in this way, but too often, powerful men like myself and the Senator are held to impossible standards of public composure. By crying as frequently as he did to me, Marco showed he wasn’t a “worthless pussbag” as Trump had said. It was the most courageous thing he could do. He opened himself up, and I accepted him. If I have learned anything from Marco besides the need to invade Iran or how retirement ages should be phased out, it’s that we men owe each other emotional honesty. And that’s a New American Century I can get behind.
Sweet travels, Marco. I knew you were doomed, but I think there’s a future out there for you in Florida, likely in real estate-related schemes.
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at [email protected] or Tweet to @carl_diggler.
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